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Electrical System Design: Component Placement Strategies and Board Functions

Microchips and components on a circuit board

CC BY 3.0 Frank Zheng

There’s only so much you can do with a single printed circuit board (PCB). We’ve seen advances in miniaturization and the steady rise in the number of transistors you can squeeze on a single chip. Electrical system design is looking more complex than ever, though, and doesn’t seem to be getting any easier. Factors such as EMI concerns, thermal limits, and the overall rise in circuit complexity have turned multi-board PCB design into an industry necessity.

A multi-board PCB system is any design that requires more than one PCB working together. From partitioning, to intra-board connectivity, to 3D design considerations, and tips for EMI (electromagnetic interference) reduction, let’s dive into common component placement strategies in electrical systems.

Partitioning: PCB Systems and Subsystems 

PCB partitioning (not to be confused with the digital partitioning of a hard drive for memory purposes) is about physically grouping components based on functionality. Each functional subsystem can be viewed as a set of components and their supporting circuitry.

For example, your typical motherboard can be further subdivided into a number of functional units such as your processor clock logic, bus controller, bus interface, memory, video/audio processing modules, and peripherals (in/out).

In the context of multi-board PCB design, partitioning may be followed by refactoring components onto different boards. There are many reasons one might do this, including:

  • EMC (electromagnetic compatibility): Mitigate EMI concerns through best practices such as separating analog and digital circuits (we’ll dive into more of these EMI reduction techniques later in this article).

  • Cost: For functional circuits that require more expensive multi-layer board architectures, it can be cheaper to use a smaller board that can be connected to the main board.

  • Modularity: When designing multiple products, it can save a business time and money by incorporating modular standardized units into a design, allowing you to add functionality to a baseboard as needed (e.g. think shields in Arduino chipsets).

  • 3D Space: Just because you can fit all your circuitry onto a single standard 10” x 16” PCB (roughly the size of a pizza box), doesn’t mean that’s practical for the physical dimensions and shape of your device’s enclosure.

Electrical system design involves quite a bit of craftiness and creativity when working to solve the particular problems of forcing a whole slew of components with their own voltage and current attributions to come together into one functioning design. 


Installed electrical system with paneling and wiring

Determining board partitioning is a good step in managing your system design.


Electrical System Design and Intra-board Connectivity

Determining connectors for electrical systems is more than just determining what works best for your available production budget. Connectors are multi-faceted and can be make-or-break in some design cases when you’re working through particular power demands. 

Intra-board connectors serve as the cornerstone of multi-board PCB design. Here’s a quick look at the different types of intra-board connections:


  • Board-to-board: Your male/female, pin/socket headers are the most common type of board-to-board connector out there. They tend to be low cost, and are not ideal for high-speed circuits. However you can use higher pin counts and multiple pins to handle larger current draws.  A good rule of thumb is to be mindful of the manufacturer’s rated current handling capacity per pin.

  • Card edge connector: Traces leading off the edge of one board can be inserted into a matching socket on another board such that the two boards are perpendicular to one another. Card edge connectors are often used as expansion slots on motherboards, backplanes or riser cards, with the PCI-e (Peripheral Component Interconnect Express) slots used to add more RAM to your computer as a prime example. Corrosion resistant gold contacts that directly contact traces on the board make them great for high-speed digital signal circuits.

  • Board-to-harness: There are many instances where it may be necessary to connect cables and wires to a board. The FFCs (flexible film cables), FPCs (flexible printed cables), and ribbon connectors characteristic of a server room are prime examples.

  • Direct-soldered: Castellated vias allow you to create PCB modules that can easily be soldered together. These are especially popular for attaching small wireless modules to larger boards. Just be sure to follow high soldering standards such as the IPC-A-610 or J-STD-001.


Whether your design requires creating towers of PCBs stacked on top of one another, or sliding boards into racks or backplanes, it’s important to ensure you’re able to get a solid connection between the different boards that make up your product.

EMI Reduction in High Speed Circuits

EMC/EMI concerns are one of the major driving forces behind multi-board PCB design. All it takes to create EMI is energy and an antenna. The demand for higher-performing electronics means high-speed signal circuits are only going to become more prevalent in the years to come.


Electrical system with wiring and cabling out

With so many components at play, it’s no wonder EMI is a concern in multi-board systems.


Multi-board designs give you more room to accommodate EMI/EMC best practices. Things such as keeping analog and digital signals separate, avoiding right-angle traces on cramped boards, and the cost-effective use of multilayer boards on an as-needed basis. At the same time, multi-board designs also introduce new concerns, requiring you to extend your analysis beyond single boards to the connections between boards and the entire system.

Putting It All Together With 3D Design Considerations

Multi-board design is like an expensive 3D puzzle. Each board that makes up your system must fit into a physical enclosure or case. There’s nothing worse than drafting up the “perfect” CAD drawing, procuring all the boards, parts, and connectors, only to find out on assembly day that you didn’t get all your 3D clearances right. Worse still, not leaving enough room for proper ventilation, subjects your product to heat-related performance degradation. And we haven’t even scratched the surface of the physical realities of EMI.

Fortunately, we now live in a time where software exists to help the designer keep track of all these “puzzle pieces.” Designers can now take a holistic approach to multi-board PCB design, performing signal integrity analysis across all boards, connectors, cables, sockets, and other structures. 

Managing design difficulties has never been easier than when using Cadence’s suite of design and analysis tools. For any layout need, component placement or routing or documentation,  Allegro PCB Designer is the tool for you, and beyond that there are tons of augmentations for analysis, simulation, and more available. 

If you’re looking to learn more about how Cadence has the solution for you, talk to us and our team of experts.